Given the persistent unknowns, the potential cancellation of this NBA season due to the threat of the coronavirus — including the loss of the 2020 playoffs — would be a worst-case scenario for the entire league. The Milwaukee Bucks, though, might feel the impact more than most.
For a lot of teams, shifting into offseason mode might be somewhat simple. But the Bucks, like a handful of top contenders, could lose a championship without ever stepping on a court.
Milwaukee had the league’s best record last season and was in front of the pack again last month when the balls abruptly stopped bouncing. Now the franchise’s best shot at its first NBA title in 49 years could be lost to the pandemic.
With stakes as high as the level of prevailing uncertainty, you might expect a veteran such as guard George Hill to be worried about the Bucks’ chances of resuming their drive to The Finals. Hill, in his 12th season, is a veteran of 107 games in 10 postseasons, still in search of a ring. He wants it, the Bucks want it, fans in Milwaukee want it — and right now, there’s nothing any of them can do about it.
So Hill’s frustration must be growing, right?
“The world is bigger than just NBA fans,” Hill said Tuesday afternoon in a media conference call arranged by the Bucks. He was joined on the call by teammate Marvin Williams, a 15-year veteran who has yet to reach a conference finals.
“To our fans,” Hill said, “it will be exciting to get the season back, to get up and going and get something to watch on TV. But if this is the cost for safety and health, what we have to ask is, ‘Is it worth it? Is it worth putting yourself on the line, putting your family and kids on the line to make a couple more dollars?’ For me, personally, no.”
Some of Hill’s response is about treading lightly at a time when sports has dropped on so many folks’ priority lists. Some of it is expected, too, from his long-established, low-key, calm nature.
But some of it is perspective based on the virus crisis hitting awfully close to home.
As Hill tells it, his wife Samantha’s 85-year-old grandmother contracted the coronavirus recently. The in-laws live in Brownsville, Texas, four hours away from the Hills’ home in San Antonio.
“[She] had the chills, fever of 106 I think, really high, didn’t eat for a while, lost her smell, her taste,” Hill said, “and ended up beating it. Her grandmother is one of those hard-nosed, don’t-want-to-take-medicine, let-God-heal-me [types].”
The grace of God, Hill said, did just that, delivering another of those reminders we shouldn’t need about what’s important.
“It just kind of gives you a sense of where life is,” he said. “I feel like sometimes we take things for granted and things can go sideways with the snap of a finger. One day you see someone doing well, and the next day they’re not.”
For Hill and Williams, that includes their Milwaukee teammates, scattered across the country while the world waits. Hill and his family booked a private plane down to Texas several weeks ago.
Williams, who only joined the Bucks on Feb. 10 after being waived by the Hornets, went from Charlotte to a Milwaukee hotel, to the All-Star break, back to the hotel, then finally to more permanent digs. No sooner had his fiancée and their kids joined him than the season was put on hold. They only recently drove right through from Wisconsin back to North Carolina, a 13-hour trek with a pit stop in Lexington, Kentucky.
“The most interesting couple of months of my NBA career,” Williams called it Tuesday.
But now? Not so much.
“This situation is a little different than the lockout,” said Williams, whose seventh NBA season started late and was cut to 66 games due to stalled labor talks in 2011. “When the lockout happened, we weren’t allowed to work out at our facilities. But [now], we literally cannot play basketball. You can still go somewhere else and work out, but you’re scrambling to find places even to train.”
Both Milwaukee players have cobbled together daily routines that start with their respective kids — each has two, ages 4 and younger. They play educational games, do a little pre-K schooling and spend the sort of family time NBA players rarely get in March or April. Hill said his children have begun learning some Spanish, a nod to his wife, the former Samantha Garcia.
After that, it’s individual workouts. In Hill’s case, he trains in his driveway with a boxing instructor on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he drives to the ranch he owns outside San Antonio to tend to the animals, the barn and the grounds there. His hobby, he calls it.
I truly love those guys as brothers. Our team has been very special this year. The camaraderie we have, the relationships we have with each other have been really special.”
Both have been active in community efforts at this time of need. For example, Hill has helped first responders and medical personnel by distributing meals from a friend’s outlet, Bush’s Chicken. In addition to taking food to a police station and three hospitals, he opened a $1,000 tab at a local restaurant where virus fighters could “get a meal on me.” This week he’s helping a nearby children’s home score cleaning supplies through another friend’s business.
Besides watching the Michael Jordan documentary, ‘The Last Dance,” Hill and Williams have heard the possible scenarios for the NBA’s return. Arenas without people in the stands? One neutral site where all 30 teams might compete? Hard for these players to get their heads around.
“It would be different, it would be awkward,” Williams said. “If you’re talking about the playoffs, I feel like the crowd is probably the most exciting thing out there. The atmosphere, the environment when you go out there, I think players would really miss that.”
Said Hill: “If there’s a way, it’d be cool. But to say, go to Vegas and stay in a hotel for a month-and-a-half, I don’t think it’s possible. I think tourists and people are going to be there. It’s hard to sit in your house, let alone to sit in Vegas in the hot weather for a month-and-a-half.”
When the lockout happened, we weren’t allowed to work out at our facilities. But [now], we literally cannot play basketball. You can still go somewhere else and work out, but you’re scrambling to find places even to train.”
Bucks forward Marvin Williams
The longer Hill spoke, the more his grounded view of an NBA player’s place in this plight wavered a bit. With all the talk about loved ones, well, to him, his Bucks teammates are loved ones.
“I truly love those guys as brothers,” Hill said. “Our team has been very special this year. The camaraderie we have, the relationships we have with each other have been really special.”
More than the 53-12 record, more than Giannis Antetokounmpo’s likely repeat Kia MVP performance, more even than the opportunity awaiting them (or not).
“We’re a big family, our team. We all get along, we enjoy being around each other. To not have that, it’s weird. It doesn’t feel right.
“But everyone is separated right now,” Hill said. “Now that I’m back in Texas, it seems like I’m so far away. The bad part is just not knowing. You wake up every morning not knowing if you’re going to play again this year or not.”
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